Importance of Diversity in American Orchestras: A Call for Change

Diversity is a significant issue in orchestras throughout America, and it has garnered attention from music lovers and industry professionals alike, with many calling for change. In this post, we will explore why diversity in orchestras is crucial and provide an overview of the current state of diversity in American orchestras.

So, what exactly does diversity in orchestras mean? It means creating an environment that welcomes all individuals regardless of their background, race, gender, and abilities. Diversity in orchestras can broaden the repertoire of music played by orchestras and reflects the diversity of the community it serves, making it more accessible and welcoming to a wider range of audiences.

Diversity in orchestras has a positive impact on the musicians themselves. Working in a diverse environment provides opportunities for personal and professional growth, as well as fostering a sense of community and belonging. It also allows for the exchange of ideas and techniques between talented musicians, leading to a more comprehensive understanding of music.

Despite the many benefits of diversity, the classical music industry has traditionally been exclusionary. American orchestras have made some strides towards diversity in recent years, but progress has been slow. According to a study conducted by the League of American Orchestras, only 1.4% of orchestral musicians in the United States are Black, 6% are Latinx, and 3% are Asian. This lack of diversity in orchestras is not only a reflection of systemic issues within the classical music industry, but also a missed opportunity for cultural enrichment and innovation.

To truly promote diversity in orchestras, orchestra administration and classical musicians must work together to create an environment that values diversity and promotes equity. By doing so, we can create a more accessible and vibrant classical music industry for everyone.

American orchestras – history

The history of orchestras in America can be traced back to the early 19th century, when orchestras were established in cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. These early orchestras were made up of predominantly white European musicians who were often hired from abroad. As the popularity of classical music grew in the United States, so did the number of orchestras, with many cities establishing their own ensembles.

However, despite the growth of orchestras across the country, the lack of racial diversity within these organizations has been a persistent issue. This can be attributed to a number of factors, including historical barriers to entry for musicians of color, the Eurocentric nature of classical music, and systemic racism within the classical music industry.

In the early 20th century, orchestras in America began to establish audition processes that were designed to be blind and impartial, with the aim of ensuring that musicians were hired based solely on their talent and not on their race or ethnicity. However, despite these efforts, the number of musicians of color in orchestras remained low. This was in part due to the fact that many musicians of color lacked access to formal music education and training, which was often limited to wealthy white families.

The Eurocentric nature of classical music also played a role in the lack of diversity within orchestras. Classical music has historically been dominated by the works of European composers, and orchestras have focused primarily on performing this repertoire. This has created a perception that classical music is only for a certain type of listener, one who is familiar with and appreciates European cultural traditions.

Additionally, systemic racism within the classical music industry has contributed to the lack of diversity within orchestras. This includes issues such as hiring biases, lack of mentorship and support for musicians of color, and a lack of representation in leadership positions.

America’s orchestras working for equality and diversity

In recent years, America’s orchestras have been taking important steps towards achieving greater equality and diversity within their organizations. From initiatives aimed at increasing diversity among musicians and staff to programming that celebrates underrepresented composers and cultures, orchestras are working to create more inclusive environments that reflect the diverse tapestry of American society. These efforts are not only crucial for ensuring that classical music remains relevant and accessible in the 21st century, but they also help to build more vibrant and equitable communities both within and beyond the concert hall. Let’s take a look at some of the orchestras with noticeable efforts.

Boston Symphony Orchestra

The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) has been making efforts to increase diversity in recent years. One of their programs aimed at this is their fellowship program, which was launched to address the lack of diversity in their orchestra. This program is intended to give two fellowships per year to underrepresented populations, with the aim of increasing diversity in the orchestra. In 2022, both fellowships were awarded to Latino musicians. This is a promising sign that the BSO is committed to making progress in diversifying their orchestra.

In addition to the fellowship program, the BSO has also faced criticism for their lack of diversity in programming. In 2017, musicians in the Boston area sent a letter to orchestra leadership calling for greater diversity in programming after noticing that only one of the 73 pieces scheduled for that season was composed by a woman, and the rest were from white male composers . This criticism has likely contributed to the BSO’s recent efforts to increase diversity.

To further demonstrate their commitment to diversity, the BSO has also recently appointed Sandra St. Fleur Wright as their first-ever Vice President of Talent and Equity. Reporting to the President and CEO, St. Fleur Wright’s responsibilities include human resources, staff recruitment, and other initiatives related to equity and diversity within the organization. This is a significant step for the BSO in terms of their commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Overall, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has been making efforts to increase diversity within their organization, with initiatives such as their fellowship program and the appointment of a Vice President of Talent and Equity. While there is still progress to be made, these efforts are promising signs that the BSO is committed to creating a more diverse and inclusive organization.

Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Detroit Symphony Orchestra has made significant investments in programs aimed at promoting diversity and music education in the city of Detroit. One of these programs is Detroit Harmony, a new initiative that aims to provide every student in the city with access to a musical instrument, which was made possible through funding from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation and the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation.

Additionally, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has established a board-led Detroit Strategy Taskforce as part of its commitment to the cultural and economic growth of Detroit, with a focus on investing in social impact programs, DEI initiatives, and music education in the city . The orchestra has also been involved in the Classical Roots concert series for over 44 years, which aims to trace the musical heritage of Black America and bring the orchestra to the people.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

In July 2022, Jonathon Heyward, a 29-year-old African American conductor, was appointed as the first African American music director of the Baltimore Symphony, making it the first top-10 American orchestra to appoint a Black person as music director. This appointment marks an important milestone in increasing diversity in the classical music industry.

Barriers to Diversity in Orchestras

Despite concerted efforts to promote diversity, many major symphony orchestras continue to be predominantly white and male, with a lack of representation of musicians from diverse racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds. In this section, we will explore some of the barriers to diversity in major orchestras, including the role of the audition process and the old boys network, and the need for a more holistic hiring system and artistic planning that promotes diversity.

The audition process is considered the main entry point to orchestras, and while it is designed to be impartial and based on merit, it has been criticized for its potential to limit diversity in orchestras. Research has shown that orchestras that conduct blind auditions, where the musician is screened from view, have increased the number of women in their ensembles, highlighting the potential for unconscious bias in the audition process. However, the use of screens to hold auditions has been criticized for not addressing other forms of bias, such as the preference for a certain type of sound, playing style, or repertoire, which can disadvantage musicians from diverse backgrounds. Moreover, the lack of diversity in the audition panel, which is typically composed of senior musicians, conductors, and administrators, can also perpetuate biases and limit diversity in orchestras.

Another barrier to diversity in orchestras is the old boys network, which refers to the informal and often exclusionary networks of relationships and connections that can influence an orchestra’s hiring system and decisions. In orchestras, this can take the form of musicians who have studied at the same Conservatories or who have worked together in the past, which can lead to a homogenous ensemble and limit opportunities for musicians from diverse backgrounds. Moreover, the lack of diversity in the leadership of orchestras, such as conductors and administrators, can also perpetuate this network and limit opportunities for diverse musicians.

To address these barriers and promote diversity in orchestras, there is a growing consensus that a more holistic hiring system is needed, which takes into account not only the musician’s technical skills but also their potential for collaboration, innovation, and creativity. This can include a broader range of audition requirements, such as improvisation or composition, which can better assess the musician’s artistic potential and fit with the orchestra’s culture and values. Moreover, involving musicians from diverse backgrounds in the audition panel can bring a different perspective and promote inclusivity in the process.

Finally, artistic planning is a crucial aspect of promoting diversity in orchestras, as it can influence the choice of repertoire, guest artists, and collaborations, which can showcase the diversity of musical traditions and perspectives. This can include commissioning new works by composers from diverse backgrounds, programming works that represent different cultures and styles, and collaborating with artists.

Looking for solutions

Looking for solutions

When it comes to promoting diversity in orchestras, there are several solutions that can be implemented. One important step is to increase access to music education programs in underserved communities. Studies have shown that a lack of music education can contribute to the underrepresentation of certain groups in orchestras. By providing more opportunities for young people from diverse backgrounds to learn an instrument or study music theory, we can create a pipeline of talent that is more representative of society as a whole.

The Sphinx Organization is a great example of an organization that is working to promote diversity in orchestras by increasing access to music education. Founded in 1996, Sphinx is dedicated to transforming the lives of young people through the power of music. The organization provides scholarships, mentorship, and performance opportunities to young musicians from underrepresented communities, with a particular focus on Black and Latinx musicians. By creating opportunities for these young musicians to excel, Sphinx is helping to create a more diverse talent pool for orchestras to draw from.

Role models and mentorship are also crucial in promoting diversity in orchestras. For young musicians from underrepresented communities, seeing someone who looks like them in a leadership role can be a powerful motivator. By providing mentorship and support to young musicians from diverse backgrounds, we can help to break down barriers and create a more inclusive culture within orchestras.

The Sphinx Organization also plays a key role in providing mentorship and support to young musicians. Through its various programs, Sphinx provides young musicians with access to some of the top professionals in the field, helping to inspire and guide them as they pursue their musical careers. By creating a network of support and mentorship, Sphinx is helping to create a more diverse and inclusive classical music world.

Finally, it is important to note that diversity should not just be limited to the musicians themselves. Having a diverse administration and leadership is also crucial in promoting a more inclusive culture within orchestras. By ensuring that people from diverse backgrounds are represented at all levels of the organization, orchestras can create a more welcoming and supportive environment for all musicians.

The League of American Orchestras has made diversity one of its main issues and is working to promote diversity in all aspects of orchestral administration and leadership. According to Jesse Rosen, the organization’s president, the league will work with its 700 member ensembles to provide funding and mentorship for diversity initiatives. By taking a comprehensive approach to diversity, the league is helping to create a more inclusive culture within the classical music world.

In conclusion


In conclusion, there are several solutions that can be implemented to promote diversity in orchestras. By increasing access to music education programs in underserved communities, providing mentorship and support to young musicians, and ensuring that there is diversity at all levels of orchestral administration and leadership, we can create a more inclusive and welcoming culture within orchestras. Organizations like Sphinx and the League of American Orchestras are leading the way in promoting diversity and should be celebrated for their efforts.

Promoting diversity in American orchestras is essential for creating an inclusive and accessible classical music industry. The lack of diversity in orchestras has been a historical issue, but there are promising signs of change. Efforts such as fellowship programs, mentoring from classical musicians, and the appointment of individuals dedicated to promoting diversity and equity within orchestras, are steps in the right direction. To truly create a more diverse and inclusive industry, both orchestra administration and classical musicians must work together to promote equity and value diversity. By doing so, we can ensure that classical music is accessible to everyone and reflect the diversity of the communities it serves.